Monday, December 13, 2010

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker - 320 pgs


Book CoverProfessor Adele Barker has just arrived in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship to begin teaching at the University of Peradeniya with her teenage son, Noah. As Adele begins to steep herself in the culture of the island, she does battle with the native insect and monkey population, learns the ways of the natives and discovers the intricacies of the civil war that has raged out of control on the island for the past twenty-five years. Adele and Noah tentatively begin to carve out a life for themselves in the island paradise that they are inhabiting, but soon discover that even for foreigners, Sri Lanka can be a dangerous place, full of old prejudices and bloody conflicts. Adele begins researching the problems and unrest of the area, speaking to participants on both sides of the conflict as she tries to comprehend just what the fighting is all about. She makes close friends on the island and comes to regret the day she must return to Arizona, never knowing that upcoming events in Sri Lanka will force her to return. When she sees the news report documenting the terrible tsunami of December 26th, 2004, she understands that she can't stay away, and this time travels to the island without her son. What greets her upon her return is devastation of the highest order and a population that is torn, battered, and bruised. Adele formulates a plan to traverse the perimeter of the island to witness the destruction firsthand but discovers that her plan is almost impossible due to the political conflicts and unrest on certain parts of the island. Making her laborious way across the landscape, she discovers the painful truth surrounding the humanitarian aid that never reached it's intended targets and meets the families of people whose very existence has been wiped away "the day the sea came to the land." Shockingly stark in its implications and intimations, Not Quite Paradise unveils the hidden and painful history of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka and its inhabitants.

Despite my efforts to truly keep up with world events and geography, I find that in some ways I am always falling short. When I requested this book from Library Thing's Early Reviewers Program, I had been hoping to brush up on a bit of history and geography regarding a place that had never fallen into my radar. I have to say, I had never really given Sri Lanka any thought before, and to make matters worse, I don't even think I could locate it on a map. I feel that I got much more than I ever bargained for when I read this book, finding out not only where Sri Lanka was, but also a myriad of information about the conflict that has been tearing apart its natives for more than two decades.

Adele Barker first begins her memoir speaking about the very things that would strike a lay person upon traveling to Sri Lanka. Her reactions to the heat and the crowding fill the first pages of this book, and it only when I was well into the story that I could see that the things that Adele had been discussing early on were only surface impressions of a place that is steeped in religious and cultural upheaval. Adele and Noah make the difficult progression to the house they will be renting, discovering that the house has been overrun by nature, mostly the pestilent kind. It was pretty humorous to hear about her battles with the indigenous ant population and the problems that she had keeping a television antenna from being stolen by monkeys. She spoke profusely of the people that she shared quarters with and her daily trips to the market for fresh food. The first three or four chapters were basically given over to her reaction to life on the island and the people she came to befriend, and while reading, I got the mistaken impression that this was going to be a light arm-chair traveling kind of book. Boy, was I wrong!

As Adele begins to get into the groove of the island and begins to teach her English literature classes, she receives warnings from both colleagues and students about the violence lurking just around the corner that coincides with the general elections. It seems that student protests and riots in the area are common when election time rolls around and Adele begins to become curious about what the gist of the problem is and how it affects the population. She begins to talk to the native people and discovers that there is a whole undercurrent of war and conflict that not only has been going on for years, but also that it is not likely to end soon. The civil war stems from the discordance between the two main cultures represented in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who are both fighting for an independent nation-state for themselves, and what it boils down to is student insurrection, government corruption, and the guerrilla-style warfare perpetrated by the Tamil Tigers. The war in Sri Lanka touches all classes and castes and over its twenty-five year span has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, a fact that stuns and saddens Adele. She makes it a point to canvas many areas of the island and speak to all classes of people to discover the toll the civil war has taken on Sri Lanka's people, economy and religion.

As Adele and her son leave the island to return to their more peaceful life in Arizona, she is heartbroken to discover the news of the tsunami that has wreaked vengeance on the island. She becomes increasingly panicked over the fates of her friends and returns to witness the terrible scene for herself. Upon returning, she is shocked to discover a country and culture that is almost totally destroyed. Adele makes her way around once familiar places and finds that the the conflicts of the war have not abated since the disaster. Foreign aid is being commandeered by rebel forces and those whose homes and livelihoods have been swept away by the wave are in dire straits. They not only have no access to food or shelter but they are being held in specific areas by the cruel players in the conflict and are having to make do in the most crude of ways. Though most of Adele's friends are fine, she cannot help but be devastated by the situations she sees all over the island, especially in the more remote areas.

I can't really pinpoint my reactions to this book. Reading it was very enlightening and engrossing but I couldn't help but be a little disappointed by the gravity and focus of the story. It almost seemed that entire chapters and sections had been devoted to giving the war a complete run down and at times I felt that the book was written more in the vein of war reporting than anything else. This is not to say that I found the book to be dry or boring, only that I felt that the author invested most of her story in the various conflicts going on all over the island instead of her reactions to the conflict and the place. I feel that in some ways the book misrepresented itself, and the first few chapters were more to my liking. I think that the book could have told the same story and had the same heft and importance had it not been so bogged down by the political information in it. Overall, I think that the abundance of the book would be very confusing to most readers due to the intricate details of the war that the author attempted to impart. While I enjoyed reading it, it was certainly not the book I had been expecting, and I couldn't help but be a little disappointed.

This book deals with very serious topics and is not a light or easy read. I think that those readers who enjoy delving deeply into the politics and cultures of foreign locales might enjoy this foray into Sri Lanka, but those who only wish to travel vicariously through the area might not appreciate it as much. Adele Barker certainly has an eye for detail, so in some ways this story was successful, but in others, I felt that it was a bit too rough around the edges and lacked cohesiveness. I wish I had known a little bit more about this book before jumping in, maybe then I could have adjusted my expectations a bit better.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

21 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

It's too bad this book didn't work out. I was happy when the rock star M.I.A. saw it as a mission to get out word about Sri Lanka, but since she had her baby, she hasn't been heard from much.

Pam said...

This looks really interesting from a human interest point of view. It does look "thick", though. i was a political science major and am used to slogging through war journals, though, some of them work and some of them don't. Looks like I might have to be in the right frame of mind for this. A good, thoughtful review, nonetheless, though. Thanks. ; O)

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Wow, this certainly does look quite heavy. Still an interesting topic and Sri Lanka is a fascinating place so I will keep it on my radar but will bear your review in mind when reading it!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

This book sounds really interesting! I tend to enjoy novels more than memoirs, but I've been trying to consciously read novels set in locations I'm not familiar with.

Suko said...

This book sounds very heavy and intense. Excellent, thoughtful review.

Amy said...

Sounds like a really fascinating book - one I want to read :) I'm sorry to hear it wasn't what you were expecting though. You are right that the first bit does sound very different from the rest of it. (But the rest of it intrigues me a lot!)

Marie said...

Hmm. It sounds interesting but probably something I'd want to hear about more than read. Great review, though:-)

bermudaonion said...

I know very little about Sri Lanka, so the book does sound interesting to me. I think I'd have to be in the right mood to read it, though.

Darlene said...

Sorry it didn't quite work out for you Heather. It definitely sounds way out of my league. It sounds like an interesting story line if done differently I guess.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I don't know much, but I know enough to say that I don't ever want to visit there. I do enjoy non-fiction and learning new things, but this sounds a bit heavy. Good review though!

Erin said...

Hmm, I assumed from the title that this book would be armchair travel-y as well! It certainly sounds interesting, though a bit heavier than most books I tend to read. Very thorough, enlightening review!

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I agree, this does sound very heavy. I think you really need to be in the mood to read a book like this. I think the topic is interesting, and I love learning about new places. Sorry it didn't work out for you, I don't think it's my type of book either.

Jenners said...

I could see that a reader might go into this expecting "fish out of water" tale and getting something else entirely. It sounds like the book is very worthwhile and informative but you need to know what you are getting before you read it.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Sounds good, but too heavy for this time of year.

Jenny said...

I am not good with very very political books, unless I specifically gear myself up for it. :p I am interested in Sri Lanka, but I think I'd need something a bit less involved, at least until I become slightly more of a Sri Lanka expert.

TheBookGirl said...

One of the reading goals I think I may set for 2011 is to read something from parts of the world unfamiliar to me...I'm not sure that this one would work for me, though, as I would want to get more a feeling for the culture and setting, and this one seems too heavily steeped in the political arena. Sorry it wasn't what you expected.

Lenore said...

One of my best friends was on the Sri Lanka desk at state department. She knew a lot about it!

Aarti said...

I had a phase in college when I was really interested in Sri Lanka's recent history. It is really sad what that country has been through, and is still going through. My friend was there a couple of years ago and said it is just gorgeous, so I hope things settle while there is still beauty to see.

softdrink said...

I agree, it wasn't the book I was expecting, either. I thought it would be entirely about her experiences living in Sri Lanka. The book took an abrupt turn with the news of the tsunami.

Melissa M said...

This looks interesting, but I'm really glad I read your review before seeing it elsewhere. I'm much more of a vicarious traveler, and really don't enjoy politics, so I don't think this one is for me.

Lisa said...

It's too bad this one didn't quite work. I love novels that will also teach me something, particularly when it's about another country.

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